ArtTalks | The Essence of Man

05 Oct 2017
2 min read
At times eerie, sometimes uplifting, the unique work of Belgium artist Johan Van Mullem is always captivating.

Johan Van Mullem draws on artistic inspiration from a place that is so unique to him, no one else could possibly find it. He digs deep into his subconscious to reconstruct the soul.

Born in Belgium in 1959, where he lives today, outside of Brussels, Mullem’s upbringing has played its part in influencing his work. Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo — formerly the Belgian Congo, among other state titles — Mullem is influenced by African cultural references and artifacts, such as African masks, which often creep into his work. Van Mullem says: “The faces are just a symbol needed to express and possibly reflect the viewer’s own soul. The soul itself is a deeply buried treasure. It is something we all have, but that we rarely visit.”

With a diplomat for a father, Mullem travelled often as a child. Following the Congo he moved to Tunisia for several years — a place and period which has also deeply impacted the artist.

His Influences also feature famed psychological portraiture artists, such as Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992), Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) and Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). There’s a reoccurring use of earthy tones — a palette of yellow, red, with charcoal black prevalent — to create ghoulish shapes and figures.

Mullem’s composition might be defined by abstract portraiture with a sense of the macabre, but his work also features etchings and sculptures, as well as paintings and drawings. There’s something beautifully raw and visceral about Mullem’s drawings, particularly one intoxicating sketch created using a Bic biro pen. Other drawings might look like they’ve been created using charcoal, but the artist is a fan of the pencil. Mullem’s etchings bear a particularly strong resemblance to the work of the Spanish artist Goya.

There’s a primitive edge to Mullem’s work that really draws you in. Taking you on an embryonic journey to his sacred soul. Perhaps this is the reaction the artist is looking for? He’s cleverly baring his soul, using his hands, his craft, his creative prowess to reveal and reconstruct. Whatever your take, one thing is for sure — the artist’s work is captivating and Mullem is truly gifted.


Johan Van Mullen’s work is exhibited at Musee D’Ixelles Brussels and can be found at Unit London.